Murphy’s War (1971) is a film I first saw back in the late '80s. I was home alone and caught it on television. You know how there are some movies you can see and then forget the plot just a couple months later? And there’re some you just don’t forget. Murphy’s War was the latter for me. I have not seen it in twenty plus years, but I pretty much remembered all of it. I’ve wanted to see it again for years now and just never could find it. When I found it on DVD, I bought it solely on those memories.
This is a WWII film, but a rather unusual one. It’s set in Venezuela, on the Orinoco River, in the last days of WWII. Peter O’Toole plays Murphy, whose ship is sunk and all the crew members gunned down by the crew of a U-Boat. Murphy is the only survivor. He’s rescued by Louis (Philippe Noiret), a Frenchman working for an oil company and taken to a woman doctor in the local village, played by Sian Phillips. Those three characters are basically the only speaking parts in the movie besides the German U-Boat captain (Horst Janson) and some of his crew. Murphy recovers from his wounds and goes on a one-man crusade to sink the submarine that destroyed his ship, any way he can. Is there anyone who can play righteously obsessed quite the way Peter O’Toole can?
Seeing the movie again, I was surprised by how brutal the opening of the film is, when the ship is sunk during the opening credits. It has to be, to get audience sympathy behind Murphy’s plan. I was also surprised how fast-paced and absorbing this film is, for having little dialogue -- until I saw that the screenwriting credit belonged to Stirling Silliphant. Then I wasn’t surprised anymore. I’ve come to greatly respect his writing abilities from the Route 66 episodes he wrote, particularly his ability to write characters and their moral dilemmas. And let Peter O’Toole bring a character like Murphy to life, and I don’t know why this movie isn’t more well known. O’Toole is mesmerizing, and I love the little things he does throughout the film that just bring his character to life, such as always throwing out the pills the doctor keeps giving him, or the look he gives Louis when Louis replays the same record over and over. He is by turns charming, unforgiving, unstoppable, obsessed, angry, pitiable, and always human.
One of the great scenes of this film is when Murphy has repaired a seaplane, and he gets in, determined to learn how to fly it. Watching the plane bouncing hard on the waves as he tries to get it up to speed and get it airborne is tense and exhilarating. And when he finally gets the plane airborne, I felt the same the excitement he did. The on location footage, on that gigantic river and swooping over the jungle is awesome. This is a film I’d really like to see on the big screen.
Another of my favorite scenes involves the German Captain trying to explain in broken English to a badly wounded English officer why he has to kill him. He doesn't have to do that, but he can't quite shoot him down without his own humanity prompting him to explain why. He doesn’t like any of this, but it is war, and he has his orders. And I love how at the same time, the wounded officer secretly hides his flight jacket so the Germans won’t find out about the plane. It is a near perfect war movie scene, harsh as it is.
Of course, when news comes over the radio that Germany has surrendered, Murphy doesn’t stop his one-man war. He’s gone too far by that point to stop. He will destroy the submarine or die trying. This is a war movie and a revenge movie, and a cost of war movie and a cost of revenge movie. All rolled together. It’s rather brilliantly done.
The cast makes the film. Philippe Noiret is wonderful as Louis, the laid-back, genial Frenchman who spends his days fishing while he watches over company property. Murphy sucks him into his plot, using his skills and time and company equipment to further his own ends. Sian Phillips is also perfect as the doctor. Both characters are the perfect foils to Murphy’s one-track mind. As is Horst Janson as the captain of the submarine, following his orders and doing his job. I love the scene where he and his crew are celebrating Germany’s surrender and the end of the war. (He and his men speak German with subtitles throughout the film). The submarine is obviously not a WWII U-Boat (I’m not sure there were any left in 1971!) but that didn’t bother me. It is a gorgeous boat, and the fact that they used a real submarine to cruise up and down the river just makes this movie all the better.
I’m really not sure why this movie isn’t better known. It’s not one I ever hear mentioned when WWII movies are talked about, and that’s a shame, as it’s quite impressive. There was a reason the movie has stuck with me for over twenty years, and it felt even more powerful when I watched it today. It’s a combo of a great script that shows an intimate arena of the war, with solid pacing, top notch actors, and fabulous location filming.